Traditional British dishes and ingredients become new.
British food has long been an easy, lazy punchline. Unlike similarly sized cities in France, Italy and Spain, cultural hubs of the U.K. have struggled to gain international recognition—or even national appreciation—for their centuries-old food traditions and the distinctiveness of their terroir. That’s been changing. (For example: British cheeses are finally getting the respect they deserve.)
"No one was really celebrating British food culture in 2013," says Miranda York, who founded the magazine At the Table that year to do just that. "We might sometimes talk about the ingredients we have here, or the restaurants and the chefs, but we wouldn't dive deeper and talk about the people and stories and memories behind the food." Now, several top restaurants in London—and throughout the country—are embracing food memory as an organizing principle, celebrating long-forgotten (or ignored) dishes, ingredients and methods.
York, who hosts Voices at the Table series of salon-like food events with writer Anna Sulan Masing, delights in this new obsession with "rediscovering the really traditional food culture that we’ve lost," she says. "Some of the weird stuff ... offal ... liver ... sometimes it’s really random things." She mentions the resurgance of shrubs, the drinking vinegars that people made to preserve produce for hundreds of years, but that virtually disappeared after the invention of refrigerators. (No one had written down their recipes, either, so the recent rediscovery hinged on oral histories.)
Masing adds, "If you think about how different accents are in this country, that gives you a sense of how regional things can be. Town to town you get different tweaks on an accent, so of course food culture will vary."
Prominent London-based chefs are partly to thank for this new wave of British food appreciation. London-based Sam Cattell, whose job as an American Express Travel Destination Manager requires him to develop a deep, almost alarming familiarity with the city's food scene, points to Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck as one of the key players in the movement. Blumenthal, who makes regular appearances on the World's 50 Best Restaurant list, is often credited with launching the Modern British style of cuisine.
“Fat Duck almost changed the landscape of London dining in many ways,” says Cattell. “The restaurant is in a place called Bray, west of London in the outskirts, and it has turned into a massive food destination.”
There is no better time to eat modern British fare in London. Here are five places to start:
The one-Michelin-star restaurant from Gordon Ramsay protégée Jason Atherton is a masterclass in updated British classics, with an unrelenting emphasis on regional product. Here, you’ll find some of the best squab and venison in the city. Don’t miss the Paignton Harbour crab salad starter, or the Smith’s smoked eel.
8-10 Pollen St, Mayfair, London W1S 1NQ, UK
Fergus Henderson is a veritable offal zealot, and we couldn't be more grateful; the chef is bringing back such delightful-to-say dishes as “Smoked Sprats and Horseradish,” “Snails and Oakleaf” and “Duck Hearts, Radishes and Damson.” Henderson’s classic cookbook, Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking, is an excellent entry point for those who need to work up the courage to give these insides a try.
94-96 Commercial Street, London, E1 6LZ - St. JOHN
The Fat Duck
Located in a 16th-century building just west of London, the three-Michelin-star restaurant has done serious work to legitimize the reputation of British cuisine. At somewhat exorbitant prices, celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal shows what he can do with a molecular gastronomy sensibility and national standards like chips (he triple-cooks them), porridge (he adds snails) and kelp (he plates with edible sand).
High St, Bray SL6 2AQ, UK
Consistently recognized as one of the top gastropubs in the city, the hidden Kensington restaurant serves an Italian-inflected Sunday Roast, impeccably. Get adventurous with the calve’s liver with celeriac dauphinoise croquettes, or go traditional: roast rump of beef and Yorkshire pudding.
"You get the essential British pub experience," says Cattell. "They do the best Sunday lunch you’ll probably ever have."
15 Selwood Terrace, Kensington, London SW7 3QG, UK
In addition to a lovely English breakfast and afternoon tea, the Soho restaurant succeeds at serving a thoroughly modern yet unmistakably British dinner, with nearly every plate incorporating produce from the nearby countryside as well as traditional recipes. Throughout February, the hotel-bound restaurant served a Best of British tasting menu with British wines and beers, including dishes like Cornish mussels with Bethnal pale ale and leek cream, port jelly with stilton “air” and Ragstone goat’s cheese with heirloom beetroot, walnuts and endive.
1 Ham Yard, Soho, London W1D 7DT, UK